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Burj Khalifa Tower Park, Dubai, UAE

Landscape Architecture by SWA Group

The Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai was designed with the three 'petals' of the 'spider lily' Hymenocallis in mind. The park design reiterates that design focus, with intricate and beautiful patterning found in Middle Eastern art, architecture and gardens. Indigenous plants and local stone paving are woven into three complex geometric patterns reminiscent of spider lilies and the formal gardens spread throughout the Persian Gulf. Each of the three roundabouts and stylized landscapes serves one of the tower's three functions: residential living, office space and the hotel (see p. 35). The garden spaces of the Grand Terrace (top left) offers custom site furnishings and a lake edge promenade. The main entry drive (bottom right) is the Palm Court and fountains, with the 'prow' of the tower lookout pointed toward it. The pedestrian paths and outdoor spaces include a forest grove (right) of date palms, silver buttonwoods, banyans, olives and laurels. The sole-shaped structure (middle right) is a guard house/parking control booth. The curling roadway (top left) is the accesses to the underground garage for residents of the tower.
Photo: David R. Gal, PLA/ASLA, MPG Group

The Burj Khalifa is a celebration of rigorous design, construction, and, most of all, possibility. The 27-acre 'green oasis' features plazas, gardens, pools and promenades in a human-scaled setting that grounds the world's tallest building. In the middle of an extreme desert climate, the landscape architects forged a new baseline for design achievement, while creating a lasting model of environmental efficiency and sensitivity.

At 163 floors and 2,717 feet tall (2,722 counting the tip), the Burj Khalifa ('Khalifa Tower') is the tallest building and man-made structure in the world, more than twice as tall as the Empire State Building, and 941 feet taller than 1 World Trade Center. An observation deck is at the 124-story level. 'Khalifa' references Sheikh Khalifa, president of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Emir of Abu Dhbai, one of the seven UAE emirates. The tower is in downtown Dubai. Dubai is the most populated (2.1 million) emirate of the UAE, although Abu Dhbai, the capitol, comprises 86.7 percent of the UAE's total area (excluding the islands). The building is owned by Emaar Properties. The tower architects were Skidmore, Owings and Merrill of Chicago, with Adrian Smith as chief architect, and William Baker as chief structural engineer.
Photo: Tom Fox

The story of the Burj Khalifa is well known. The tallest building in the world deserves an equally awe-inspiring setting. Unsurprisingly, designing such an iconic landscape was but one of many challenges. Not only did the landscape architects have to consider the significant subterranean infrastructure associated with a building that is over half a mile tall'indeed, 80 percent of the site design work is built on top of building structure, making the park akin to a giant green roof with limited soil depth'they also contended with an exceedingly harsh and hot desert environment. Rather than being seen as restrictions, however, these constraints enabled the designers to develop many innovative solutions that placed equal emphasis on aesthetic and technical achievement'a singular solution for this tremendously unique structure.

SWA did the concept design for all the Burj water features. WET Design of Sun Valley, Calif., was brought in to do the technical drawings and installations.
Photo: Tom Fox, SWA Group

Technical challenges were not the only complex issues this project raised. Pressing questions of sustainability were particularly important and every possible measure was taken to ensure that this landscape would be a lasting model of efficiency and environmental sensitivity. Ultimately, given that humans have been inhabiting some of the most unlivable places on Earth for thousands of years, this project set out to pay tribute to human life in the desert by creating a stunning green space that works with the desert climate instead of against it, resulting in a world-class space that is accessible and enjoyable for humans but still mindful of the remarkable beauty and history of this unique environment. Offering an invitation to spend more time outdoors comfortably, an extension of the park design follows a promenade along its two-kilometer length and provides the kind of connective tissue that typically does not exist in this city where people drive from place to place.

Photo: Tom Fox

Photo: David R. Gal, PLA/ASLA, MPG Group

A series of terraces slope from the plaza to the lakeshore. The terraces are 20 mm deep reflective pools (the dark triangular areas) of raised polished black granite. The water walls are lit at night. Interspersed within this geometry are Plumeria obtuse 'Singapore Frangipani' trees in bloom, and Seashore paspalum, a warm-season grass known for its salt tolerance. Beneath the terraces are four stories of below-grade parking. The road (left image, top) is parking access for the Burj Khalifa Tower office tenants.

Project Site, Scope, and Challenges
Situated on 27 acres of land, the 'green oasis' encircling the Burj Khalifa tower includes plazas, gardens, pools and promenades that create a human-scale frame for the tallest tower in the world. On the ground, the scale of the building is nearly unfathomable'the residential high-rises that form the backdrop for the tower look miniscule by comparison. Given the dominance of the building, it was important to create a landscape that featured the building, yet still provided refuge in places from its awesome mass.

Without proper care, the design of the ground surrounding the building ran the risk of creating a uninhabitable no-man's land, alternating between sun-induced conditions such as scorching glare, distortion from sand in the air, and extreme temperatures of 115' F or more, and building-induced conditions such as pervasive shadow as well as pockets of unusual wind turbulence created by the tower's aerodynamic shape. Instead, the groundscape mitigates these variable conditions or uses them to its advantage, resulting in a project that is simultaneously innovative and stunning. As an example, an exhaustive process of wind-tunnel studies led the team to use tree canopy in several areas to overcome the wind's force and make the spaces habitable.

This is the northeast side of the Burj Khalifa Tower with its own distinctive landscape patterning of palms and succulents, with a roundabout and curlicue entrance to the subterranean parking for guests of the Armani Hotel Dubai. Most of the 160 guest rooms (basic rate is $708) are on the eight lower floors of the tower, with the suites up on the 38th and 39th floors. Hungry? The hotel has a choice of nine restaurants. Don't forget the Armani boutique and spa.
Photo: David R. Gal, PLA/ASLA, MPG Group

Creating this landscape required a thorough understanding of the building's multiple functions and inherent mixed-use nature, as well as the multi-model traffic coordination entailed by its adjacency to a bustling urban center. Multiple entries and drop-offs, service access points, garage and structural considerations, and public versus private entrances were just some of the many circulation nodes considered on the ground level, prompting the design of clear navigation and wayfinding graphics to direct visitors towards building entrances as well as public oasis, cooling, and garden areas.

The hardscape banding is a fine'grain mosaic of light gray 50 x 50 mm granite blocks. The mosaic motif is a design intent to create more intimate pedestrian ways. Bands of low-clipped hedges of Ruellia brittoniana 'Katie' and Asystasia gangetica Chinese violet alternate as borders to the walkways.
Photo: David R. Gal, PLA/ASLA, MPG Group

Each circulatory system had to be carefully designed and sequenced for the project to function seamlessly, but also consider the nuanced social interactions in Middle Eastern culture. Beyond the choreography of various circulation and access paths, there were coordination complexities induced by fixed design elements, such as emergency exits, intake and exhaust vents, and structural beams and girders, as well as the sequencing challenge of designing the surface landscape while subterranean parking structures were in the midst of construction. Technical and structural complexities abounded as well. How can a robust landscape thrive on layers and layers of structural and mechanical infrastructure that allowed limited soil depth? Last, but certainly not least, were the project's numerous environmental considerations: How can the landscape evoke an oasis within a desert while minimizing water use?

The solution to all of these concerns was to stay mindful of locality. Cultural and social customs yielded interwoven circulation and outdoor rooms; local artistic traditions showed up in the use of Islamic patterning as a recurring motif; and finally, an indigenous plant palette maximized scarce water resources and minimized the need for deep soil.

The paving bands were constructed from 400 x 400 x 400 mm granite blocks (porphyry cobbles) set in a running bond pattern, affixed on a 25-40 mm dry mortar bed, and set on the concrete foundation of the parking decks below. The granite colors are black, medium gray, tan, and white, all in a flamed (thermal) finish to produce a textured, nonreflective surface. The type, color and quality of the stone was closely controlled from the mockup through to installation. The raised circular traffic control buttons (50 mm thick and 100 mm in dia.) were custom-fabricated in Dubai from cast aluminum. The granite was auger bored, and the buttons countersunk and epoxy-set.
Photo: David R. Gal, PLA/ASLA, MPG Group

Indigenous Planting for Sustainability, Water Conversation and Cultural Reference
The inspiration for the Burj Khalifa groundscape was the intricate and beautiful patterning found in the region's art, architecture and gardens. Indigenous plant materials and local stone paving are woven across the ground plane in complex geometric patterns reminiscent of the region's spider lilies, as well as the formal gardens that spread throughout the Persian Gulf.

The succulents on site are mostly of the spikey variety: five agave species, eight cacti species plus Beaked Yucca, aloe and Spanish 'Bayonet' in the mix. Madagascar palms, 'Golden Barrel' cacti and olive trees are prominently pictured.
Photo: David R. Gal, PLA/ASLA, MPG Group

By using native plantings and sustainable water features for cooling and comfort, the project aims to improve the microclimates surrounding the building and provide respite from an exceedingly hot desert climate. Water in the Emirates is scarce and becoming scarcer; in addition to using low-water, drought-tolerant native plant species, the design of a state-of-the-art irrigation system that uses recycled water from the tower's cooling equipment helped to ensure efficient usage of this precious resource, while still reducing the heat island effects on the ground, cooling the air with extensive softscape, and providing shade and mitigating glare with an extensive tree canopy comprised of more than 15 different species, including date palms, silver buttonwoods, banyans, olives and laurels. Apart from the environmental benefits, the use of indigenous plantings and locally sourced materials arrayed in patterns that reference Middle Eastern designs further the theme of locality by providing a culturally and historically aligned echo of the tower's aesthetic references.

Photo: Tom Fox

Photo: David R. Gal, PLA/ASLA, MPG Group

The bed plantings include shrubs and groundcovers of Ficus microcarpa 'Green Island', Iresine herbstii 'Bloodleaf', Jasminum sambac 'Arabian jasmine', Pennisetum alopecuroides 'Hameln' (dwarf fountain grass) and Quisqualis indica 'Rangoon Creeper.' The gardens are partly irrigated with the tower's air conditioning condensate water, which is stored in the basement car park, providing about 15 million gallons of supplemental water a year.

The project required in-depth design and technical expertise in the areas of hydrological engineering, horticulture, international building codes and construction standards and materials sourcing. In addition, members of the design team spent several multi-day research trips in Dubai researching plant materials by visiting local and regional nurseries, as well as nearby projects to develop a plant palette that works in this extreme climate. These trips also provided time to: visit stone suppliers and fabricators'local stone was selected despite limited availability in the area; evaluate custom site furnishing mock-ups; research materials that could sustain the climate's weathering, erosion and sun bleaching; and discuss the project with local contractors and subcontractors to gain an understanding of how things get built in the country.

An extensive series of granite-clad steps were required to compensate for the large grade difference.
Photo: David R. Gal, PLA/ASLA, MPG Group

Lastly, to ensure that the project was built to the highest standards of construction, the firm's full-time field representative remained onsite to coordinate with contractors and assess craftsmanship at regular intervals. Through expertise and careful planning, the work was completed from schematic design to construction documents in six months, on time and within the fixed project budget.

The main entry drive is a granite roundabout circled by date palms, with a central fountain and three peripheral fountains, looking like the feature of a face when seen from above. The ground level view of the Palm Court shows Pennisetum alopecuroides 'Hameln' dwarf fountain grass (foreground), with olive trees and Delonix regia 'Royal Poinciana' rising above the jetting waters.
Photo: Tom Fox

Looking Back
As designers, we were incredibly grateful for the opportunity to learn from a project of this scope and nature. The knowledge gained from many years spent implementing new projects around the world continually reaffirms the focus of our global practice and reflects the changes happening in the larger world of landscape architecture.

U.S. designers can have an instrumental hand in the development of spaces and places anywhere, but in an increasingly global economy, every new project requires fresh thinking that is innovative from a design standpoint and synthesizes the complexities of 'glocal' cultures and ecologies as well as business, design, and engineering practices.

From the hotel drop off at Tower Park, radial paving patterns emanate and extend into the landscaping beds that integrate with the traffic circle. The bollards are custom-cut polished black granite with a laser-etched patterning on the sides with the Burj logo. Beneath the bollards are concrete-filled metal pipes set in a continuous large below-grade concrete foundation to function as very strong vehicular crash barriers. All the hardscape within the 26 plus acres of Tower Park surrounding the Burj Khalifa skyscraper is granite. There is no precast concrete surface hardscape on site. Proscape, one of Dubai's premier landscaping contractors, supplied, coordinated and installed all the custom stone paving for the project. The granite was sourced through Stone & Slates LLC, Dubai, most of it imported from China, India and the Middle East, with most of the stone cut in Dubai.
Photo: David R. Gal, PLA/ASLA, MPG Group

The hardscape slopes to three raised, sinuous granite planting beds whose lower plinths hold water that flows over its walls. Water also jets up between the beds. A carpet of red flowered 'Baby Sunrose' ice plants add color and nature to the driveway.
Photo: David R. Gal, PLA/ASLA, MPG Group

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